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Category: Women in History

  1. Unlucky Princesses: Margaret of Austria

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    Although her early life can classify her as an “Unlucky Princess”, in many ways Margaret of Austria’s life was better than other such royal women. Betrothed and married several times, she was not only eventually allowed to manage her own destiny, but she became ruler of the Netherlands as Regent for her nephew. Through this she joined the ranks of other strong women who managed the region on behalf of their menfolk.

    Born in 1480 Margaret was the daughter of Mary of Burgundy and Maximilian of Austria. Mary was the heiress to the wealthy Duchy of Burgundy while Maximilian was next in line to rule the Holy Roman Empire. Sadly Margaret’s mother died in a hunting accident when she was just two years old, leaving the little girl and her older brother Philip in the care of their father and their step-grandmother, Margaret of York (sister of King Edward IV of England).

    Months after Margaret lost her mother her life was upended again as Maximilian completed a treaty that sealed her future. France and Burgundy had been at war for years and Maximilian moved to find peace with the French. The Treaty of Arras was signed in December 1482 and included the clause that Margaret would be married to the French Dauphin, Charles. Margaret was promptly sent off to France to grow up in the French court. Her education was supervised by the Regent, Anne of France, and she grew up with a selection of other French noble children.

    But the French marriage, and the position of Queen of France, never went to Margaret. In 1491 Charles renounced the treaty and called off the betrothal so he could marry Anne, Duchess of Brittany. Anne herself was betrothed to Margaret’s father Maximilian, who failed to show up with an army to defend his would-be wife. Anne was forced to agree to marry Charles, and Margaret was left hanging at the French court. She was finally returned to Burgundy in 1493 where she resided with her step-grandmother and namesake.

    Margaret of Austria in a black dress with a white headdressMaximilian was quick to arrange a new marriage for his only daughter. Their Most Catholic Majesties, Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile, had one son and four daughters. Their eldest, Infanta Isabella, was due to marry the Portuguese heir. Maximilian picked their second daughter Juana to marry his son Philip, and in return Margaret was sent to marry Prince Juan, swapping the position of Queen of France for future Queen of Spain. At the end of 1496 Margaret left Burgundy once more, this time for Spain. She and Juan were married on 3 April 1497. The pair reportedly fell in love, Juan was entranced by his beautiful, witty bride. But six months later he was dead, probably from tuberculosis, leaving Margaret in the early stages of her first pregnancy. A baby girl was stillborn in April 1498.

    Margaret remained at the Spanish court for over a year, finally leaving Spain in September 1499. By March 1500 she was taking part in Burgundian court life, Philip and Juana invited her to be the godmother of their son and heir Charles. Once again Maximilian arranged for her to marry, this time to Philibert the Duke of Savoy. They married in 1501 but Philibert died three years later after contracting pleurisy, he and Margaret had never had children. After three betrothals and two marriages to men who had died young she decided she was done. She vowed to never marry again and spent the rest of her life as a widow. At one point Maximilian and Philip suggested her as a potential bride for King Henry VII of England, after his wife Elizabeth of York died. But Margaret refused, despite pressure from her family. Although she spent the rest of her life dressed as a widow she eventually decided against taking religious vows.

    In 1506 Margaret’s brother Philip died in Spain. He and his wife Juana had inherited the Kingdom of Castile, and Philip had fallen ill while visiting his new Kingdom. His death left a power vacuum, he and Juana were parents to two sons and four daughters (their youngest daughter was born after he died). Their oldest son, Charles, had been left in Burgundy but was still only a child. Maximilian appointed Margaret as the new Regent of the Netherlands, ruling on behalf of her little nephew and helping arrange his education.

    In the time between Juan's death and her marriage to Philibert Margaret had lived with her step-grandmother. She had clearly learned a lot from the older woman. Her court, based at Malines, was modelled on that of the Dowager Duchess. She had inherited personal effects from the elder Margaret including tapestries and jewellery. She negotiated peace with France, negotiating the treaty that led to the League of Cambrai. Although she essentially worked to increase the power of her Habsburg family, keeping the peace allowed trade to flourish in the Low Countries. Her court gained a reputation for elegance and education, especially for young women. One of those women was Anne Boleyn, who spent several years living with Margaret before moving to the French court.

    As he grew up Charles originally seems to have resented some of her influence, led by his closest advisor Guillaume de Croy. Working behind Margaret's back, de Croy persuaded Maximilian to let Charles declare himself of age to rule when he turned fifteen. Charles then dismissed his aunt as Regent and set up a council. She was a member but had no vote, essentially she was resigned to the position of advisor without being able to make any decisions. De Croy was a French sympathiser and led Charles down a path that saw him acknowledge that he held Burgundy with permission from the French. It was a mistake that Margaret would have never let him make.

    When Charles' grandfather Ferdinand of Aragon died in 1516 Margaret saw her chance. Margaret helped negotiate Charles' accession to the Spanish throne and waved him off with De Croy in his train. Charles realised he would struggle to single-handedly rule both the Netherlands and Spain. Margaret was returned to her former role in 1518. Margaret worked hard for her nephew, even negotiating his becoming Holy Roman Emperor even before her father Maximilian had died. She also spent much of the 1520s helping gather money and men for Charles' various wars. She supported his attempts to stop the spread of Protestantism in the Netherlands. In 1529 she was one of the key figures in the “Ladies Peace”, a treaty between the Netherlands and France negotiated between Margaret and Louise of Savoy.

    There are two stories of Margaret's death. The first is that she stepped on a shard of glass, which cut her foot and developed an infection. The second is that she suffered from an abcess on her leg for a number of years, which eventually became infected. Whatever the truth she does appear to have developed gangrene from an open wound. She died on 1 December 1530 having tried to fight the infection for nearly two weeks. She left all her possessions to Charles, who followed her wish that she be buried next to Philibert at Brou.

    Although Margaret was an unlucky princess in her early life, in many ways she fared much better than other women in this series. She managed to carve out for herself a place as trusted advisor and beloved Aunt to Charles. She didn't die in povery or anonymity, but gained a reputation for diplomacy and education.

    Last month's Unlucky Princess was Blanche of Bourbon.

  2. Unlucky Princesses: Blanche of Bourbon

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    You might have noticed so far that although the unlucky princesses have generally been unhappy in their marriages, none of them have specifically been murdered on the orders of their unpleasant spouse.

    Step forward Blanche of Bourbon. Isabella-of-Valois

    Born in 1339 in France, Blanche was descended from the French royal family on both sides. Her father Peter Duke of Bourbon was a great-grandson of Louis IX, while her mother Isabella (depicted on the right, there are no surviving images of Blanche) was a granddaughter of Philip III. Her half-brother Philip became King Philip VI of France and the first King from the House of Valois after Charles IV died without a direct male heir. Philip's claim was contested by King Edward III of England, who claimed the French throne through his mother, triggering the start of the Hundred Years War.

    In 1353 Blanche was dispatched to the Kingdom of Castile in Spain to marry King Pedro. He had not had much luck with brides so far. His first betrothal had been to Joan of England, a daughter of Edward III. On her journey to her bridegroom she had caught the plague shortly after landing in Gascony and died before she even met her future husband. Pedro was reportedly controlled by his mother Maria of Portugal, and it was she who organised this second match as part of an alliance with France.

    Pedro's feelings about Joan of England aren't known, but it's generally accepted that before Blanche arrived he had already moved on and fallen in love with Maria de Padilla. He may even have married her before Blanche arrived, but if so his mother soon put paid to it. He was forced to renounce any promise he might have made to Padilla and instead marry the French princess. The marriage was celebrated on 3 June 1353, Blanche was just fourteen years old and had had to endure the usual problems of a foreign princess. Saying goodbye to her family, travelling a great distance in various uncomfortable modes of transport, and now an arrival in a foreign land.

    It quickly got worse. Three days after the marriage Pedro abandoned his new bride, declaring that she wasn't a virgin and the marriage should be dissolved. Blanche had been escorted from France by Pedro's illegitimate half brother Fadrique. They may have struck up a friendship on the journey or it may have been a plan by Pedro all along to get out of a marriage he didn't want. Either way he accused Blanche of having slept with Fadrique on the journey. Blanche was imprisoned and Pedro returned to Maria de Padilla.

    Poor unhappy Blanche was locked up in the castle of Arevalo. In theory a foreign princess had a certain amount of protection from her birth family but the French seemed relatively helpless to assist her. An appeal to the Pope to excommunicate Pedro failed, in the end the French allied with the neighbouring country of Aragon. Pedro was faced with battles on the borders as well as rebellion from his illegitimate half brothers. He had Fadrique murdered in 1358 after he assisted another brother, Enrique, in his rebellion against Pedro.

    In 1361 the Aragonese forces and their French allies were edging closer to Arevalo. Blanche, a valuable hostage, was moved to Medina Sidonia, where she suddenly died. Some accounts blame her death on an outbreak of plague, but many were quick to blame Pedro. He was accused of ordering her murder, by either poison or shot by a crossbow bolt. In some ways there was no point in killing her as it only served to anger the French more. On the other hand Pedro may have hoped that her death would leave him free to officially Maria de Padilla so he could have their four children legitimised.

    Pedro himself was murdered in 1369 by Enrique, leading to the start of the House of Trastamara. His death wasn't mourned, he had betrayed every ally who had helped him over the years. Blanche was just another name to add to the list.

    If you like the Unlucky Princess series you might like my eBook series - 30 Women in History.

    Last month's Unlucky Princess was Caroline Matilda of Great Britain.

  3. Unlucky Princesses: Caroline Matilda of Great Britain

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    Caroline Matilda was born into a court in mourning. Her father Frederick, Prince of Wales, had died four months earlier leaving his wife Princess Augusta a widow with nine children. The family had long been estranged from Frederick's father, King George II of England, but the Princes' death led to a cooling of tensions. Although George didn't like Augusta, and didn't like her reluctance to take part in court activities, she was generally left to raise her children as she saw fit.

    For Caroline Matilda this meant a more secluded life than her father might have encouraged. Augusta hated what she felt was the corruption of the English court under her father in law, and was determined to keep her children innocent of the ways of the world. Caroline was clever enough to make the most of her education, and left her schoolroom with three languages under her belt, and the family's talent for music (her eldest brother George played several instruments).

    In January 1765 Caroline Matilda was officially engaged to Crown Prince Christian of Denmark. Christian's mother was Frederick's youngest sister, making the betrothed couple first cousins. They were married in 1766, by which point Christian's father had died and he had gone from Crown Prince to King Christian VII of Denmark. In 1 May 1767 Caroline Matilda had her coronation in Copenhagen. Caroline Matilda

    The marriage was unhappy from the start. Christian, who was already showing signs of mental illness, was resentful that he had been “forced” to marry by his court, and refused to consummate the marriage for months. Instead he took multiple mistresses, until he was finally convinced of the need to have an heir to the throne. Crown Prince Frederick was born in January 1768, and Christian returned his attention to other women. Caroline on the other hand now had a reason to fight for her place at court. She was disliked by her husband's courtiers and favourites, the Danish court was far stricter than the English one and her behaviour had scandalised the nobles. Like her brother George, Caroline was fond of walking and could be spotted strolling through the streets of Copenhagen, rather than taking the carriage that was traditionally used by Queens.

    Christian's favourites did not endear themselves to her. Her favourite Lady in Waiting was dismissed, and although she rejected the first replacement she eventually had to accept the second choice. She was also rumoured to have had an affair with an actor in late 1768, but it's believed he was the lover of another of her Ladies in Waiting. Christian had embarked on a tour of Europe, and had the actor exiled on his return. Several other Ladies in the court were believed to be having affairs, and were accused of encouraging the Queen's “immoral” behaviour.

    In reality it appears that Caroline's first and only affair was with the Royal Physician, Johann Struensee. Christian returned to Copenhagen in 1769 with Struensee in tow. Although Christian's mental health was getting worse, Struensee was generally able to placate him and keep him relatively calm.

    Caroline originally disliked him. He encouraged the King to take a new mistress, but after this failed he turned to trying to improve the relationship between the King and Queen. He also helped treat the Queen when she suffered from dropsy, and successfully innoculated the Crown Prince against smallpox. Caroline and Struensee are believed to have been lovers from early 1770, although some in the court claimed they believed it started in late 1769. Wherever the King and Queen went, the Royal Physcian went with them. Working together Caroline and Struensee were able to have the King's malicious favourites banished from court. In December 1770 Struensee was a privy counsellor, and by the summer of 1771 he was given the same power as the King.

    In the following months Caroline's unpopularity increased as she supported her lover's attempts to reform the country. It wasn't helped by her behaviour, she reportedly made little attempt to hide her adoration for Struensee. She also caused further scandal by riding horseback dressed in men's clothing, and had a portrait made of her dressed in the uniform of her regiment. Her mother-in-law, King Christian's step-mother, led the opposition party at court, while Caroline formed her own group of followers.

    On 7 July 1771 Caroline gave birth to her second child. The baby girl was named Louise Augusta, and was named a Princess of Norway and Denmark. But the belief at court was that the baby should be called Louise Augusta Struensee. Despite the question of her paternity baby Louise would grow up close to her older brother Frederick, and was an accepted part of the Danish court.

    The baby's birth seems to have been the last straw for the Dowager Queen. Rumours circulated at Caroline and her lover wanted to remove Christian from power and rule the country themselves. After another courtier gave the Dowager Queen evidence (now believed to be fraudulent) that the couple were plotting against the King she decided to act. In January 1772 Struensee and his supporters were arrested. The same night Caroline Matilda was captured with her daughter and removed to Kronborg Castle, where they were kept under close guard.

    On 6 April 1772 the marriage of Caroline Matilda and King Christian was dissolved. Both she and Struensee had admitted their affair after weeks of pressure. Struensee was executed on 28 April, while Caroline Matilda's brother King George III of Great Britain had already begun negotiations with the Danish court for his sister. It was agreed that Denmark would return her dowry and provide a pension, and she would be able to retain her title. On 3 May she left Kronborg Castle, her final destination was Celle Castle in Hanover. Her children had to be left behind in Denmark and never saw her again.

    Caroline Matilda led a life of retirement in Celle. She was visited by friends and family, including her sister Augusta. She had a library and a small theatre, and regularly donated to charities relating to orphans and children from poor families. She died suddenly from scarlet fever on 10 May 1775 aged just 23. At the time of her death she was involved in a plot to return her to Denmark to act as Regent for her young son, but her untimely death put a stop to it. She was buried near her great-grandmother, Sophia Dorothea, another woman exiled from her court and children.

    Her son became King Frederick VI of Denmark, getting his revenge on his grandmother by siezing power and dimissing her ministers when he came of age. He was close to his sister, despite the questions about her paternity, and kept her as one of his most trusted advisers for the rest of his life.


    Last month's Unlucky Princess was a double; Eleanor of Woodstock and Joan of the Tower!


  4. Unlucky Princesses: Eleanor Woodstock and Joan of the Tower

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    If you want to look at an unhappy Royal family in history, then you don’t have to look much further than King Edward II and Queen Isabella. A marriage that was supposed to seal peace between England and France eventually led to a rebellion against the King. While their son Edward III certainly had a happy marriage, the same cannot be said for his two sisters.

    Eleanor of Woodstock Eleanor-of-Woodstock

    The elder of the two princesses, Eleanor of Woodstock was born in June 1318. Eleanor’s childhood featured growing estrangement between her parents, followed by her mother leading a rebellion against her father. She was nine years old when her brother was formally crowned and became part of their mother’s puppet government, and she spent a number of years in the care of various noble families in England. 

    Eleanor’s future was the subject of a lot of negotiation as the years went by. The kingdoms of Castile and France were both interested in the possibility of her as a Royal bride. Negotiations with Castile floundered over the dowry negotiations, Prince Alfonso ended up making an unhappy marriage with a Portuguese princess. For the French an English princess would have been a suitable wife for the heir to the throne, Prince John. But Eleanor was pipped at the post by the kingdom of Bohemia, who offered a princess in return for a military alliance.

    Instead Eleanor had to settle for an older widower. Count Reinoud II of Guelders had been widowed in 1329, his wife Sophia had left him with four daughters but no sons. Eleanor’s marriage was arranged by her brother’s mother-in-law, who was helping expand English influence beyond the normal spheres. Eleanor was given a magnificent trousseau and was dispatched overseas. The marriage took place in May 1332 in the town of Nijmegen (part of modern Netherlands).

    Sadly for the young princess it was not a happy marriage. Eleanor gave birth to the required heir and spare; Reinoud was born in 1333, and Edward in 1336. But she was much younger than her husband, barely two years older than her eldest stepdaughter. Coming from an unstable family and unhappy childhood Eleanor reportedly clung to her husband, who eventually grew bored and dismissed her from court. He even tried to have the marriage annulled by declaring she had leprosy, but in a rare show of spirit Eleanor reportedly returned to court wearing nothing by a thin shift. With no signs of leprosy the annulment was never going to be successful.

    Reinoud died suddenly in 1343 after falling from his horse. His and Eleanor’s eldest son was only nine years old at the time. Eleanor made a bid to become Regent in her son’s name, but ultimately failed in 1344. After falling out with her son her lands were confiscated and she eventually died in poverty in a convent. She was only 36 years old.

    Joan of the Tower Joan-of-the-Tower

    Unlike her older sister, there was very little debate in Joan’s future marriage. Her name comes from her place of birth, political insecurities at the time meant that Isabella had to have her confinement in the secure walls of the Tower of London. Political considerations would dominate her life, her marriage was arranged as part of the Treaty of Northampton between England and Scotland in 1328. Joan was promptly sent north in the summer, on 17 July 1328 the seven year old princess married the four year old heir to the Scottish throne - Prince David. 

    The two children were raised together in the Scottish court. David’s early reign was marked by the passing of various regents, before he was forced to flee to France in 1334 after a rebellion led by Edward Balliol (with the assistance of Joan’s brother, Edward III of England). David was only eleven, Joan was nearly thirteen. They were offered a home in Chateau Gaillard (which had been built by King Richard I) but very little is known about their time in France.

    The Royal couple were allowed to return to Scotland in 1341. Joan was now twenty years old and reportedly a beautiful young woman. But David returned to Scotland with his mistress in tow, leaving Joan somewhat sidelined in her own court. They lasted in Scotland for five years until David was captured by the English at the Battle of Neville's Cross. He was taken to London and imprisoned in the Tower of London and Joan followed. But while her husband was a captive, albeit one held in a certain amount of luxury, Joan was an honoured guest. She resided with her mother, was given a pension by her brother, and received frequent visits from her sister-in-law Queen Philippa and her nieces and nephews.

    In many ways Joan's story ends better than most unlucky princesses. Her marriage was a sham, and David had consistently shown his disdain for her. After his release and return to Scotland in 1357 he quickly took up another mistress. Joan by this point had had enough and returned to her brother's court where she was once again a beloved member of the family. She accompanied Isabella on her final pilgrimage and nursed her during her last illness. She didn't live for too many more years, dying in 1362 aged 41. She was buried at London's Greyfriars Church near her mother.

    David remarried after becoming a widower. His second wife also failed to conceive any children, and on his death the Scottish throne went to the Stuart line.


    Last month's Unlucky Princess was Maria Josepha of Bavaria.

    If you like the Unlucky Princess series you might like my eBook series - 30 Women in History.

  5. Unlucky Princesses: Maria Josepha of Bavaria

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    If you don't get along with your mother-in-law then spare a thought for poor Maria Josepha of Bavaria. Not only did she get an overbearing mother-in-law in the form of Empress Maria Theresa, but she also had a husband who spent most of their marriage showing his complete disdain for her.

    Maria Josepha was born on 20 March 1739 in Munich, the last of seven children, although only four had survived infancy. At the age of four she lost her older sister Theresa Benedicta, followed by her father Charles when she was just six years old. Her mother Maria Amalia was a first cousin to Maria Theresa, and it was on her behalf that Charles, who was Holy Roman Emperor, had claimed the Habsburg lands during the War of Austrian Succession. After Charles' death Maria Amalia persuaded her son to make peace with Maria Theresa, and it was Maria Theresa's husband Francis who was elected the new Holy Roman Emperor. Maria-Josepha-of-Bavaria

    Maria Josepha's mother lived in retirement after her husband's death, and she may have taken her youngest child with her for company. In 1756 Maria Amalia died, leaving her seventeen year old daughter an orphan. As her two surviving older sisters were married she most likely resided at the court of her brother, Maximilian III of Bavaria. Both sisters had married relatively late, in their early twenties, so it should not be too surprising that Maria Josepha was still unmarried at the age of twenty six, when a marriage was proposition arrived from the court of Empress Maria Theresa.

    The potential bridegroom was her eldest son Joseph. His first wife Isabella of Parma had died 1763 after contracting smallpox while pregnant. Joseph's only living child was a daughter, and the Empress was determined that he would have a male heir. A uniting of the two families might prevent war in the future, and Maria Josepha was the only unmarried daughter left from that side of the family. Her thoughts on the match are unknown, but Joseph was particularly reluctant. He had adored Isabella and continued to mourn her. He had no interest in remarrying, unless it was to her sister Maria Luisa (who declined the suggestion, not only was she already betrothed but she had no interest in taking her sister's place).

    However Maria Theresa was not an indulgent parent. She wanted an heir from Joseph, and so he needed a wife. After a proxy ceremony two weeks previously the couple were formally married in Vienna on 25 January 1765. Although Maria Josepha was, at first, very happy with her husband and fell in love with him quickly her feelings were not reciprocated. In one of his many letters Joseph complained that she had bad teeth, acne, and was too short. In another letter, this time to his former father-in-law, Joseph complained that he had nothing in common with his new wife and would never be able to love her.

    Maria Josepha herself was very aware that her husband didn't care for her, in many ways he did nothing to hide it. In fact Joseph managed to arrange his days so that he only saw his wife briefly in the morning when he woke up, at mealtimes when they shared a table, and in the evening when they went to bed. The rest of the court may have taken their cue from Joseph as his wife does not seem to have settled in well, she was mostly isolated and deeply unhappy. She was reportedly a very amiable young woman, but poorly educated (surprising given that of her two surviving sisters, one was a noted musician and the other a diplomat). Joseph wanted a mirror image of Isabella; beatiful, well educated and witty. Maria Josepha would never live up to the idealised portrait of the beloved first wife.

    Eight months after the wedding Maria Josepha became Holy Roman Empress when her husband's father died. However the reins of power were still very firmly in the hands of Maria Theresa, and she wasn't ready to relinquish anything to her son, let alone her daughter-in-law. Had Maria Josepha managed to produce the desired heir then things might have improved, but she and Joseph do not appear to have conceived a child during their few years together.

    In May 1767, just over two years after her wedding day, Maria Josepha contracted smallpox and died. Joseph stayed well away from his second wife and didn't even visit her on her deathbed, although Maria Theresa visited her (and caught smallpox as a result, however she survived).

    Maria Josepha's tomb can today be found in the Imperial crypt, as a Holy Roman Empress she was buried with the rest of the family who had cared so little for her in life.

    Last month's Unlucky Princess was Juana la Beltraneja.

    If you like the Unlucky Princess series you might like my eBook series - 30 Women in History.